Road to Emmaus

I speak to you in the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

I am a walker (and sometimes a runner) Early mornings will find me walking, and until recently, I could be found on the shores of Lake Michigan at the Montrose Park Dog Beach where dogs can run and play off leash while their human companions walk along the shore. Whether I’m alone with my dogs or walking in easy companionship with my fellow dog walkers, walking is balm for my soul and life giving for my spirit. Where I encounter our God in the wonders of a sunrise, in the awesomeness of creation, and in the companionship of others. This balm has felt more elusive these past few weeks as the ease of walking with others, of greeting strangers along the way has been replaced with crossing the street to maintain social distance, worries about coming too close to others, faces covered by masks,

And as I re-read the story of Emmaus, I wondered more about what the walk was like for Cleopas and his companion as they traveled the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

Walking and movement are ongoing themes in Luke’s gospel.

A journey brings Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and takes them to Jerusalem to present their son. The Parable of the Good Samaritan takes place along a road, and a long walk home leads the prodigal child back to his father. Jesus walks from Galilee to Jerusalem over the course of 10 chapters in Luke ultimately ending with the walk to the cross. For the writer of Luke, there is something about the journey, the way walking on the road can bring us a together, or pose a danger to us all, the way walking becomes a symbol of a faith on the move.

And today in our gospel we find ourselves on the road again. And it seems an ironic and heartbreaking coincidence that we also expected and hoped to be on the road today (on the road for the neighbors who rely on our pantry and community dinner) – running or walking our Ravenswood Run 5K with 4,000 others, when we high five and fist bump our neighbors and sometimes our former mayor, when hundreds of volunteers pass out water and Gatorade, and cheer on the runners and the walkers of all ages as they head under the metra bridge and down Wilson to the finish line.

It feels like a cruel joke, then, that this story of Emmaus appears now—during Pandemic Easter. When for me, at least, and maybe for you as well, the triumphant acclamation that Christ is risen indeed, sometimes falls a little flat. Luke’s signature resurrection story – the story of Emmaus – feels like a distant fantasy in our time when traveling and walking with others, meeting and eating with strangers are activities we cannot take part in.

So perhaps reading and hearing the story of the walk to Emmaus through the lens of this time can lead us to new insight about this Easter season.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are walking from Jerusalem three days after the crucifixion of Jesus (it’s Easter Sunday). And while we know the ending to the horror of Good Friday, they do not. They’ve heard unbelievable reports from some of the women that the tomb was empty and that an angel told them Jesus was alive. The men went to check it out but all they found was an empty tomb. Cleopas and his friend may have decided that getting out of town, away from the crowds, and potential violence was their best bet. They were grieving and afraid, uncertain, and without hope. And while on their 7 mile walk to Emmaus, they meet a stranger who asks what they are talking about, why are they sad. While we know who has appeared, Cleopas and his friend are kept from recognizing the Risen One who is there with them and they pour out their story of grief and longing. The one in whom they had placed their trust, their hope for a kingdom of justice, their assurance for freedom from oppression, just got executed by the system from which they hoped Jesus would set them free. The one who they believed would fulfill the promises of Scripture was dead.

“We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” We had hoped.

These words might be our lament as well – we had hoped for a different diagnosis, we had hoped that she wouldn’t relapse, we had hoped for something different. we had hoped to be back together sharing bread and wine, we had hoped that the pandemic would spare us instead of bringing the heartbreak and devastation it has wrought.

The words we speak on the road to Emmaus are words of pain, disappointment, bewilderment, and yearning. They are the words we say when we’ve come to the end of our hopes. But “We had hoped…”. It’s a long trip between Jerusalem and Emmaus because the distance between we had hoped and the Lord is risen indeed seems like forever, the longest walk ever. Are we there yet?

And when these two friends had finished pouring out their story of disappointment and dashed expectations to the stranger, he re-told them the story, his story, the one set in the larger context of fulfillment and hope and promise, of something more.

And they must have wanted to hear more. Because when they came to the place where they were going, they asked the stranger to stay, “urged him strongly”. Please stay for dinner. Something was stirring within them. They felt their hearts burning. Something about this stranger drew them to him. And at table, when he took bread and blessed it and broke it, they realized that the story the women told about Jesus rising was true. He was with them – right here, right now.

And that recognition of the risen Lord sent them back on the road. Back to Jerusalem – likely a different walk then the one they made to Emmaus – perhaps with more joy in their steps and a lightness in their heart, yet maybe still a with a touch of uncertainty of what had just happened.

I’ve been reminded this year that Easter as experienced by the women at the tomb, the apostles, and Cleopas and his fellow traveler on their walk to Emmaus was far different than the way we typically experience it – with trumpets, bells, packed pews, and all the exuberant joy that comes to mind.

Perhaps our Easter this year has been more like theirs – where Jesus shows up during a quiet walk on a lonely road; where Jesus shows up at kitchen tables when we bless and share a meal together; where Jesus shows up when we are walking our dogs and take a moment to smile at the stranger 6 feet away behind our protective masks; where Jesus shows up as we share bags of food with neighbors who are hungry; where Jesus shows up in our text to a lonely neighbor or in a phone call to an elected official demanding justice and equity for all God’s beloveds.

Wherever and whenever we make room, Jesus comes.

That’s what Jesus does, you see. What Jesus wants us to know today. Not just that he will show up, but that he will show up and give us the opportunity to speak the truth of our pain; help us make sense of it all, or at least some of it; help us get to a place where we can see beyond just what’s happened; help us move from “we had hoped” to “the Lord is risen indeed.”

During this Easter season, may we look for Jesus in the unexpected and quiet places knowing that in the midst of it all, we can proclaim that Alleluia Christ is Risen.